A senior UK Foreign Ministry official predicted recently that Kazakhstan was “on the verge of being a significant player on the international stage,” citing possible investment opportunities with the Central Asian country. He predicted that President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s visit to the United Kingdom on November 3 and 4 “will confirm Britain’s desire to be a partner of choice for Kazakhstan as it takes forward further reforms in governance, rule of law and human rights.”
While it’s true that Kazakhstan’s vast oil wealth has led to significant economic growth over the last 20 years, when it comes to human rights and rule of law, there’s no mistaking that President Nazarbaev is prioritizing economic development over political reform. But economy first is no justification for putting human rights last. Few tangible and meaningful human rights and rule of law reforms have been forthcoming in recent years.
Kazakhstan has long been a country of quiet repression. But particularly since December 2011, when law enforcement brought strikes by oil workers in western Kazakhstan to a violent end, the government has cracked down harder on its critics. The authorities have shuttered media outlets, fined and thrown people in jail for participating in peaceful protests, and targeted people who practice their faith outside state controls. The opposition leader, Vladimir Kozlov, is serving a 7 ½-year prison sentence on the overbroad criminal charge of “inciting social discord” after a flawed trial in 2012.
A new trade union law adopted in 2014 undermines workers’ right to freely organize in Kazakhstan, and has resulted in a loss of registration for some trade unions. New criminal and administrative legislation adopted in 2014 restricts fundamental freedoms, including by broadening the overly vague criminal charge of “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord,” which authorities have used to criminalize lawful behavior protected by international human rights law.
And authorities continue to misuse the vague and overbroad charge of “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord.” In mid-October authorities arrested two outspoken activists on suspicion of “inciting national discord.” They could now face up to 10 years in prison. On October 30, another activist learned he was under investigation on the same overbroad and vague criminal charge when the authorities searched his home.
A new law regulating nongovernmental organizations, currently under consideration, would impose serious restrictions on independent groups, including government control over sources of funding. UN bodies, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have expressed their serious concern over the draft law.
Following his visit to Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, noted the “very limited space for the expression of dissenting views” in Kazakhstan and pointed out that the “Government’s approach to regulating assemblies deprives the right of its meaning,” urging the authorities to review freedom of association and assembly laws.
The UK government may be right to take notice of Kazakhstan and seek greater bilateral engagement, but that equally means holding Kazakhstan to account – both in high-level meetings and publicly – for its human rights commitments, and not glossing over serious and persisting human rights concerns during Nazarbaev’s visit.
Prime Minister David Cameron and others in the UK government should not miss this key opportunity to urge Nazarbaev to immediately address longstanding issues of freedom of association and assembly, as well as shortcomings in media freedom, to create space in Kazakhstan for genuine and critical debate.
Kazakhstan has indeed made economic and other advances on the world stage in recent years, but when it comes to human rights and rule of law, Kazakhstan is lagging far behind, and Britain should say so.
Mihra Rittmann is the Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.